In the Middle East, the Twinned Peace Sports Schools (TPSS) project is turning towards an unlikely demographic to be ambassadors for peace—soccer-playing girls.
The Peres Center for Peace started the program in 2002 and has since focused on breaking down barriers between eight- to nine-year-old children in the region. According to the Peres website kids from Israeli communities are paired with counterparts from “twinned” communities within the Palestinian Authority. Upwards of 1,500 children participate in the project each year.
Children in the program learn basic Arabic or Hebrew language skills and sportsmanship, and they play together—not against each other. “We find that sports, and soccer, has the power to actually bring the kids, the participants, together, creating one identity,” said Sivan Hendel, a Peace Education project manager at Peres. She added, “All the barriers they come with from their home slowly disappear, and they feel more and more connected to their bi-national or their mixed group.”
During a recent trip to the region, Fusion’s America With Jorge Ramos watched a girls-only subgroup of TPSS in action. Young as they were, players came with their own preconceived notions of what the games would bring. At first, said Israeli coach Roy Senderovich, the girls were scared. “It’s like, ‘What will we do if the Arabs try to kill us?’” An Arab coach, Said Barhoon, described a similar fear on his team. “They have the feeling that this people is different.”
But when the girls played together their apprehension fell away. “Once they have the opportunity to meet and to break these barriers they, even without knowing, become ambassadors with this message of peace,” said Henderson. She added that girls are especially good at this. “Something we noticed with the girls is that they are…the true ambassadors.” She explained: “Girls do have… less pride. They come much more open than the boys.”
And, for girls, the program serves a secondary purpose—allowing access to an activity traditionally dominated by males. Henderson said that in Israel and the West Bank, girls’ involvement in soccer games is not taken for granted. “What we’re talking about, mindset changing, it’s not only about the conflict.”
With a focus on breaking down gender and regional barriers, the program is about humanizing the other. Said Henderson: “The project enables them to find the simple fact that the other side is human, as well…And afterwards we see the ripple effect within the communities and much larger areas.”
STATE OF CONFLICT: Jorge Ramos Reporting from Israel and the West Bank will air on Fusion Tuesday, April 28 at 10 p.m. EST.